When Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial was unveiled in 1982, responses were mixed. Instead of a traditional statue or monument, the Yale student had come up with a black granite wall engraved with the names of the Vietnam War dead. It was stark and impossible to ignore.
The American Institute of Architecture Journal called the memorial "unmonumental." Some veterans and politicians simply didn't like the design; others felt that the living should be honored as well as the dead. The memorial was delayed as the controversy continued, reflecting the divisive nature of the war itself.
Now the wall is visited by three million people a year, and anyone with a grain of humanity is moved by the experience. These days, viewers understand what Lin was trying to say — far more than what a bronze statue can convey. Veterans can see themselves mirrored in the polished stone
Lin has a an impressive series of sculptures and environmental art to her name. Her running theme is landscape, embodied in her "excavations" of fields and gardens — making marks or indents in the ground to contrast man-made shapes with natural contours.
For the 2010 Spoleto poster, Lin has looked at her subject on a large, statewide scale, then captured it on two pages of a road atlas. At the apparent request of the festival's General Director Nigel Redden, she's focused on the Eastern U.S. Happily for her, the northeastern state of Rhode Island was on the page before South Carolina. She made a cut-paper excavation of our state, adding the resulting layers of paper to the Rhode Island page. So there's a contour map-like mass growing out of the middle of R.I.
Although the poster hardly bears comparison with the Vietnam Memorial or the war that it marks, I expect more from an artist capable of provoking such strong feelings. But although the poster has no emotional impact, it still created debate; a significant number of people don't like it or don't get it.
Unfortunately, Lin hasn't given this artwork validity by explaining its context. The best art needs no title or statement to guide a viewer, leaving individuals to draw their own interpretations. But there's a fine line between ambiguity and ambivalence, and this art cuts a hole right through it.
In Charleston, we've been spoiled by witnessing paper excavations in the past. Noriko Ambe's incredible cut-paper sculptures were on view in the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art's 2006 show, Forces of Nature. Noriko cared about her environment and wanted to reflect it in her art.
Lin also cares — a current project in New York will show man's terrible impact on the natural world — so why the frivolous poster? The image is a marketing tool, sure, to remind people that Spoleto is here. But it should also be a visual summation of the event's creative contents. The lack of imagination in the poster does a disservice to all the artists working their tails off to make the fest a success.
Maybe we just don't get it yet, and we'll see ourselves reflected in that bland road map and come to some self-realization. Or maybe this is a light, fun project for Lin. If so, I have some suggestions for future Spoleto posters in the same vein: A hard boiled egg with grits stuck to the shell. A Rhode Island Red riding on the back of a boykin spaniel. A ketchup bottle with the label ripped off (sorry, I mean "excavated").
What do these images have to do with Spoleto? Nothing. But it would be fun to watch people scratching their heads and trying to figure one out.